An introduction to Physical Literacy

Physical literacy has been identified as the underlying goal of all physical activity. Physical literacy is a concept that addresses the whole child and respects each learner as individual. It is not a state that, once achieved, pertains for life, it is more akin to a personal, cradle to grave, journey.

By definition individuals who are making progress on their Physical Literacy journey can be described as having the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take part in physical activity throughout the lifecourse.

While apposite to all stages of life, the early and primary years have particular significance. It is at this stage that physical competence is very readily enhanced and when attitudes to physical activity are established. Equally it is a time when the learners begin to develop their self-awareness and self-concept and are hungry for knowledge.

The pedagogical principles that need to be addressed to promote Physical Literacy include a positive, supportive and encouraging learning environment in which individuals are commended on personal progress. Assessment is ipsative and is viewed as charting progress rather than meeting pre-ordained benchmarks. The experiences that learners meet in the physical activity context are best varied, so that young learners develop physical competence in a wide range of fields. For example in activities:

  • that challenge whole body movement as well as those that demand hand-eye co-ordination
  • where individuals work alone as well as in group contexts
  • that require co-operation as well as those that are competitive
  • that are expressive and those that can be described as more ‘functional’
  • that demand problem solving and creativity as well as those that require replication of particular skills
  • that are based indoors and outdoors and those in a variety of settings such as in/on water

Individuals’ Physical Literacy journeys are influenced by many significant others, including practitioners, throughout the lifecourse. However the years of schooling are the only time when all young people will work in the curriculum with qualified teachers who have sound knowledge and expertise in the area of physical activity and can thus enable every child to make progress on their individual Physical Literacy journey. Teachers of Physical Education can be seen to have the prime responsibility to nurture Physical Literacy. Where this is achieved for each individual, there is the potential for a most valuable legacy of a positive attitude to physical activity that can last a lifetime and add significantly to quality of life.

The concept is founded on monist principles, existentialism and phenomenology.

Those interested to learn more can access the website and/or read Whitehead, M.E. (Ed) 2010 Physical Literacy: Throughout the lifecourse. London. Routledge.

Photo: Brad Barth

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    1. Hi Gerry,

      Ipsative is a form of assessment. In education, ipsative assessment is the practice of assessing present performance against the prior performance of the person being assessed. For example, making a comparison between previous and present attainment levels, or more simply identifying whether progress has been made within the lesson and sharing this process with the student.

      Ipsative assessment can be contrasted with criterion-referenced assessment and norm-referenced assessment. Ipsative assessment is used in everyday life, and features heavily in physical education and also in computer games. Encouraging pupils to beat their previous scores can take peer pressure out of situations and eliminates the competitive element associated with norm-based referencing (comparison against others). It can be particularly useful for children with learning disabilities and can improve motivation levels. It helps create a task mastery approach to learning helping to encourage physical literacy with self-referenced goals.

      Ipsative assessment is also a continual process that should be a part of normal day-to-day teaching and learning practice.

      I hope this helps? Please let me know if you have any further questions.

      Best wishes,

  1. In my beginnings as an undergraduate student I have been asked to blog as a technology course requirement. I want to teach physical education because living an active lifestyle means a lot to me. I have had influential teachers in the past who have believed in me. My parents are both teachers too, and they have influenced my path in college. I’m planning on volunteering to coach this basketball season to give back to the community. I want to teach the sports that gave me purpose and an enjoyable childhood.

    In relating to the article I see a couple of concepts that totally agree with me. As a service learning project I act as the assistant in a PE class where we try to emphasize positive attitudes. We want the students to gain experience that they will need to go on to lead active lives. It is my goal to assist the teacher in this class with clear expectations for students and share my experience. I have explained rules or asked for clarification so we are all on the same page. I have been an active participant and showed kids that PE is something that everyone can do. I’m lucky because each week I do service is like a brand new interview with a teacher who has answers to all my questions.

  2. I’ve been doing a little reading recently around physical literacy, (and probably need to read more) but I wondered what the differences are between it and physical education. I have been a secondary PE teacher for 8 years and my overall objective when teaching my students is that of the definition of physical literacy.
    “By definition individuals who are making progress on their Physical Literacy journey can be described as having the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take part in physical activity throughout the lifecourse.”
    Is physical literacy the same thing as physical education but with a new name?